Sitting on the 4th place in the Premier League table behind Chelsea, Manchester City and Southampton, Manchester United manager Louis Van Gaal will be glad that he took charge at Old Trafford at a time when other clubs like Liverpool, Arsenal, Everton and Tottenham Hotspur are going through a slump that is making United look good in comparison. And though things look like they are improving for Manchester United, a close look at the club reveals that not everything is ok with Van Gaala s reign at Old Trafford.
The Dutchmana s initiation at Manchester United saw him experiment with different formations. He alternated between the 3-5-2 and the 4-4-2 but over the course of time, settled for the former and has been consistent in doing so over the last few months in charge. So consistent, that he pitched the same formation against Yeovil Town in the FA Cup. In fact, more than any other game, it was this fixture against Yeovil town that left Van Gaala s 3-5-2 formation thoroughly exposed. Manchester United struggled to make any progress in the game and could not find the break to turn the game in their favour. Until Van Gaal added an extra midfielder and reverted to 4-4-2 which finally allowed the team to take the lead before Angel Di Maria sealed off the victory in the latter stages of the game. The problem with 3-5-2 is quite obvious. Without the right players, this formation becomes too defensive and inhibited while the lack of the extra midfielder keeps the team creatively deficient.
For example, in a 3-5-2 formation, Van Gaal can only pick 3 midfielders out of a team that boasts the presence of Wayne Rooney, Angel Di Maria, Juan Mata, Michael Carrick, Fellaini, Ander Herrera, Janujaz and Daley Blind. Yes, Van Gaal has used both Rooney and Di Maria as the extra striker but that still leaves out 6 other players to compete for 3 spots in the team. The lack of the extra midfielder has cost Manchester United this season with Van Gaala s men struggling to score goals. Consider this. Despite the presence of Van Persie, Radamel Falcao, Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata, Angel Di Maria and Michael Carrick, Manchester United have only scored 34 goals in in 21 matches (1.62 goals/match), 12 less than Chelsea and 11 less than what Manchester City have scored this season. For a team that is soon expected to compete for titles, this statistic shows poorly on Van Gaala s ability to manage a team that can score against any kind of opposition.
This however, is not a criticism of the 3-5-2 formation itself. For this formation to work, a team needs two wing-backs who are adept at taking the ball forward and playing an intensive attacking role in the team. Not to mention the fact that they need to be defensively adept at tracking back to guard their back three. Luke Shaw is a full back. The former Southampton man is not a wing-back who can be an asset when the team is on the move in front. He is defensively strong but lacks the initiative that will make him an asset in Van Gaala s 3-5-2 formation. In addition to the two wing-backs, a 3-5-2 formation also needs a ball-playing Centre-Back, one who can initiate moves on the pitch with his passing and vision. And United do not have that defender in the team. Phil Jones, Jonny Evans and Smalling are all moderately adept defenders but none of them have the ability to play from the back and initiate the teama s attack. Michael Carrick is a solution to this problem however the Englishman is much more needed in the midfield where he has a very important role to play. Daley Blind could be used in this role and indeed started as the left-centre back against Southampton. The Dutchman had an influential role in the game and could be further used in that role in the games to come.
However the 3-5-2 formation still doesna t allow Van Gaal to accommodate the plethora of talent available at his disposal. In order to accommodate both Juan Mata and Angel Di Maria, the manager has used the Argentine as a striker alongside Van Persie, a move that failed miserably in the last fixture. Manchester United lacks players that are fast, decisive and can go past defenders in order to create space and opportunities for the team. Angel Di Maria however, is one player that fits this bill. Fast and good at dribbling, Di Maria is an asset in an attacking midfield role that allows him the space to run with the ball. But Van Gaal is toying with the idea of playing him as a striker, a role that mimics Arjen Robbena s role in the World Cup. But playing as a striker robs Angel Di Maria of his effectiveness as he does not have the room to weave the magic the fans were expected to see at the Old Trafford. Quite ironically, Van Gaal has chosen Wayne Rooney to play in the attacking midfield role. Though the United captain has shown himself to be efficient in the midfield, he is nonetheless, a world-class striker, one that is more than likely to provide Manchester United with the goals it so desperately needs. So instead of playing his best striker as a striker and his best attacking midfielder as an attacking midfielder, Van Gaal chose to switch the roles and started Di Maria as a striker and Rooney as a midfielder against Southampton. The duo did not play well and Rooney was pushed in front as a striker before Van Gaal took Di Maria off.
The lack of pace and penetration is proving fatal for Manchester United. None of Uniteda s strikers, either Van Persie or Falcao, are quick nor can they take on and beat defenders consistently. The midfielders again are slow and lack the incisiveness that is important to open up the oppositiona s defence. Juan Mata has not been creatively at his best and he is supported by Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick who cannot fill this void. The curious absence of Januzaj has also been a talking point as Van Gaal has given the young Belgian winger only 4 starts in the 21 games this season. The youngster has played only 439 minutes, and though he was injured briefly, it still reflects poorly on the manager and the player. Despite his insistence on promoting youth players, Van Gaal has curiously failed to give the nod to Januzaj prompting suggestions that the Belgian could be sent out on loan for the second half of the season. Though the winger might be too young to be a regular starter at United, his partnership with Angel Di Maria on the wings in a 4-4-2 attacking formation is something that Van Gaal can explore in the relatively easier fixtures. In fact it is his rigid belief in the 3-5-2 formation and his refusal to learn from his mistakes that seems to be leading United to troubled waters in the Premier League.
With just one defeat in the 11 games, it is quite natural to assume that Van Gaala s plan at Manchester United is working. However the cracks within the system are already visible and Van Gaal will need to make things right if United are to return to the top of the English Premier League table.